Chicken Cacciatore

Large cast iron skillet full of chicken cacciatore sprinkled with fresh herbs on a blue tablecloth.

As I’ve said before, I’m always tempted  to go the fussy route when cooking for other people. I know the food I write about is often and ideally simple, but believe me when I say that it takes lot of back and forth conversation in my head to arrive at the meals I write about. So, after an evening spent buried under cookbooks and cooking magazines, with notes and grocery lists jotted down several times over, I stopped to think about what I would actually love to eat more than anything else at that moment in time. I’d been thinking about my grandma’s chicken cacciatore lately, served with a paper napkin on her white and navy blue flower-lined Corningware dishes, and I decided right then and there that chicken cacciatore would be on the menu for Lela’s birthday dinner. You could substitute other chicken pieces for the thighs, but I think that in general the dark meat tastes better – chicken breasts could work if pounded thin in order to prevent them from drying out. I love chicken cacciatore with buttered egg noodles, but I just happen to love buttered egg noodles in any context so I’m approaching this recipe with a firm bias, buttered white rice would also be delicious if noodles are absent from your pantry. If you don’t have anything you can use to cook with both on top of and in the stove, just transfer the chicken and sauce into a baking pan before popping into the oven.

chicken cacciatore:

2 Tbsp. + 2 Tbsp. vegetable oil

8 chicken thighs (the skin is up to you, but I think it imparts some notable flavour to the finished product

1 medium onion, chopped into a fine dice

2 sweet peppers, the sweetest ones you can find (colour is secondary)

2 cups thinly sliced button mushrooms

3 cloves of garlic, finely minced

A scant cup of dry white wine

1 28 oz. can of diced tomatoes

2 tsp. Italian herb seasoning

1/2 tsp. smoked paprika

1/4 tsp. red chili flakes

Kosher salt and freshly cracked black pepper

Small handful of fresh parsley and basil,  chopped

Buttered egg noodles or rice for serving

  1. Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. In a large cast-iron skillet or Dutch oven brown the chicken thighs in 2 Tbs. of vegetable oil over medium high heat. Transfer the chicken to a large plate and add the rest of the oil to the skillet or Dutch oven, lower the heat to medium or even medium-low in order to prevent burning the vegetables.
  2. Cook the onions, red peppers, mushrooms, and garlic in the oil until they begin to soften, giving them a light dusting of salt halfway through. Stir in the dried Italian seasoning, smoked paprika, and red chili flakes before adding the white wine and tomatoes, deglazing the pan by scraping up any flavourful burnt bits of chicken that might be stuck to the bottom of the pan.
  3. Stir in a small amount of the chopped herb mixture and taste the sauce to check for seasoning, adjust accordingly. Add the chicken thighs, nestling them into the sauce, and cook uncovered in the oven for 45 minutes. Remove from the oven and sprinkle with the rest of the parsley and basil. Serve over buttered egg noodles or rice; if kept separate from the starches the sauce and chicken will keep for another 2 days in the fridge.

It’s funny listening to music under the influence of very different time periods of your life. When I first bought this CD it coincided with Fiona Apple’s appearance on the cover of Seventeen magazine (which I had a subscription to). I remember liking her for her how cool she came across as well as being a good singer, who could forget that speech at the 1997 MTV VMAs? And now, as an adult, I’m like “oh yeah! She’s also an incredible songwriter and lyricist!”  Funny how these things shift, and funny that despite my personal reactions she’s carried me through a million and half sullen afternoons of my own.

Fiona Apple – Sullen Girl

Cucumber, Tomato, and Avocado Salad with Lemon, Feta, and Chilies

An orange plate full of cucumber, tomato, and avocado salad on a bright pink and blue tablecloth. The salad is garnished with chilies, feta cheese, and scallions.

Even just a cursory glance at my blog will expose my adoration for pretty little salads. My need for introverted activities that I can conduct as a mindfulness exercises are very real, and I find the exercise of composing carefully cut up fruits and vegetables an essential part of refocusing and staying present during my week. A long day, a tedious bus ride, and the fact that it was a rainy Thursday led me to this evening’s salad. You can use more or less of any ingredient, or omit one of them if you don’t have it immediately available. Use less or no chilies if you’re not as keen on the heat, my love for it knows no bounds so I like to use a whole chili pepper per recipe, which conveniently is exactly enough for one person.

cucumber, tomato, and avocado salad with lemon, feta, and chilies:

(makes one lovely salad for one lucky person)

1/2 English cucumber, partially peeled and sliced into thick half moons

2 small tomatoes, cut into wedges

1/2 an avocado, thinly sliced

1 red chili pepper, thinly sliced

1 oz. feta cheese of your choice, crumbled

1 scallion, thinly sliced

Half a lemon, zest and juice

1 Tbsp. olive oil

Freshly cracked pepper

Pinch of kosher salt to taste

Arrange the cucumber, tomatoes, and avocado on a plate or shallow bowl. Scatter the chili pepper, feta cheese, and scallion over the salad. Drizzle over lemon juice and olive oil, top with lemon zest, freshly cracked pepper, and salt to taste. Admire your work and then enjoy immediately.

It’s the first day of September, which means I can now start playing all my favourite fall music (even though officially I should still be sticking with summer playlists).  Fall and winter music is the best music, in my opinion, and Mazzy Star is the best way I can think of to usher in the first hints of fall (Hope Sandoval’s solo work is more summery, come to think of it). I was so happy with Mazzy Star’s newest album, it’s just as broody as their older work and just as eerily melancholy.  More than anything, I want to switch from my rotating stock of sundresses into one of the many velvet versions I secretly favour.

Mazzy Star -Seasons of Your Day

Best Ever Classic Red Wine Sangria

Classic red wine sangria in a clear glass pitcher that is filled with sliced apples and oranges. Laid out on a white tablecloth with a glass of sangria to the side.

Sometimes it’s good to revisit the classics when you’re hosting a dinner party. It can be tempting to try and come up with something novel and it can also be tempting to serve multiple courses that are each a spectacle in their own right. Last weekend I had my friend Lela over for her birthday, we had a pitcher of this best ever classic red wine sangria and a big pan of chicken cacciatore (recipe will be coming soon). The food was simple, but effective, and it was so nice to prepare dinner and talk while drinking a few glasses of sangria. I know there are a million recipes out there right now for sangria, and I’ve enjoyed several variations over the summer with all kinds of different additions and flavours. I’ll always return to dependable red wine sangria though, it’s somewhat dangerously drinkable and of course the booze-soaked fruit is a whole other adventure. The most important thing with this recipe is allowing the fruit the opportunity to soak up all the alcohol overnight, if you drink it immediately after you stir everything together you’re really going to miss out on the subtle fruity sweetness that a couple of apples and oranges add to the finished product.

best ever classic red wine sangria:

1 bottle of fairly mellow and very cheap red wine (I like merlot best, anything really spicy or big in flavour will ruin the sangria’s easy drinkability)

1/2 cup brandy (probably something you don’t have lying around, but buy it once and you have it for all the sangrias and classy brandy drinking sessions you want)

1/2 cup Triple Sec or Cointreau (again, buy it once and then make all the fruity drinks you can possible think of)

2 sweet apples, sliced into thin pieces

2 oranges, peel left on and sliced into thin pieces

Club soda

Fill a large pitcher with the apple and orange slices. Add the red wine, brandy, and Triple Sec or Cointreau  and stir to combine. Refrigerate the sangria overnight. When you’re ready to serve it either top the pitcher with plenty of club soda or add the club soda to the glass. Make sure to serve with lots of ice and fruit in the glass.

Much like sangria and speaking of revisiting the classics, Echo & The Bunnymen never fails to put me in an excellent mood.

Echo & The Bunneymen – Lips Like Sugar

Cucumber Salad with Radishes, Chilies, and a Sweet Soy Dressing

Rectangular plate with cucumber, radish, and chilies garnished with cilantro. On a white, slate, and red tablecloth.

Last week I had the biggest craving for a cucumber salad made with sour cream, yogurt, and fresh dill. I followed a recipe I found online and as excited as I was to eat it, the taste was far too rich and almost cloying – I wanted a crunchy salad with vibrant flavours, not wisps of cucumber floating limply in a creamy pool of dressing. I’ve had really good cucumber salads in the past, so I know they’re a real that actually exists, but the experience led to my thinking about other cucumber salads that would still have that crunchy texture and sweet, tangy, and salty taste. I lost interest in the dairy and instead looked to the classic combination of dark sesame oil, soy sauce, and honey for an equally effective but simple dressing – much lighter overall but definitely bigger in flavour. The fresh dill became cilantro and I added thin slices of radish, scallion, and tiny red chilies to add a peppery heat and a beautiful contrast to the cool green cucumber slices.

cucumber salad with radishes, chilies, and a sweet soy dressing:

4 Lebanese cucumbers, skin left intact and sliced into thick half-moons (or, use 1 peeled and de-seeded English cucumber)

4 radishes, cut into paper-thin slices

4 scallions, whites and greens cut into thin slices

2-3 small red chilies, sliced thinly (include seeds for maximum heat)

1 large handful of cilantro, roughly torn into small pieces

2 Tbsp. dark sesame oil

3 Tbsp. soy sauce (or tamari)

1 tsp. honey or sugar

  1. Combine the cucumber, radishes, scallions, chilies, and cilantro in a large bowl.
  2. Whisk together the sesame oil, soy sauce, and honey and pour over the salad ingredients. Allow to sit for 10 minutes before serving, although the salad can sit for a few hours (dressed) before eating.

Oh, my heart.

If you’re a Canadian reading this blog you’ll know what I mean when I express that small, sad utterance. Gordon Downie, poet and singer for The Tragically Hip, played his (possible) final concert on Saturday night in his hometown of Kingston, Ontario. He was diagnosed with glioblastoma earlier this year and made the decision to tour Canada with The Hip one last time – marking an overwhelming and emotional month of live music that has managed to pull Canada together as a community despite its vast geography and problems, in a way that transcends patriotism into something much deeper. It’s difficult to explain their music to non-Canadians, rightly or wrongly we’ve claimed them as our own and our relationship to The Tragically Hip is deeply personal and one we feel needs protecting. If you want to watch their final show, bursting with presence and a shaking hand in the face of impending death, CBC broadcast it live and the whole country gathered around TV screens, in parks, and in local theatres to take this deep breath together. Screaming in the face of all our certain fates and raging against the dying light, the show was spectacular.

And so, if I had to pick, and it’s very difficult, I would say that the song Lofty Pines off of Downie’s solo album Coke Machine Glow will be my pick for this entry. I listened to a lot of Tragically Hip over the weekend, but on Sunday I wanted the softness of this particular record. The real Lofty Pines Motel is now permanently closed, but I’ve driven past it several times when it was open on the way to my aunt and uncle’s cottage in the Muskokas. This song is lazy and drawling in the sense that it immediately floods in the smell of pine, the orange needles littering the ground which opens your ears to the cracking sounds of a dry forest floor, while at the same time muting the forest as though it was covered in a soft blanket. Barring a deeper reading of the lyrics, this song makes me feel like I’m lying on a bed in a wooden cottage, reading a bad cottage book, smelling the outside through the screen window.

“Well, I dreamed of the Lofty Pines-
at least what I thought they were-
standing in the forest after nighttime,
swaying so cool and sure.
Sure had never been so wrong;
sure like the title of the perfect song.”

Gordon Downie – Lofty Pines

Slow Roasted Sweet Pepper and Baked Halloumi Salad with Oregano and Chilies

Slow roasted sweet peppers layered with slices of halloumi on a bright blue plate with decorative sprigs of halloumi cheese.

Salt is my kitchen constant. Sweet is fine enough, but nothing makes me excited to eat quite like the prospect of impending salt does. I don’t feel particularly worried about this obsession, I don’t eat very much pre-packaged food so most salt content is of my own doing. Like cheese curds, halloumi is delightfully fun to chew – the squeak brings a feeling of whimsy to such a well-respected ingredient. Often made with a mix of sheep and goat’s milk (Canadian domestic brands are often made with cow’s milk) and sometimes flecked with fresh mint, halloumi is a wonderfully adaptable protein to introduce into your recipe repertoire. For the purposes of this recipe and for overall ease I’ve opted to bake the halloumi here, but it is just as at home on the grill or in a hot skillet where it will hold onto its shape in quite an uncheese-like manner. I don’t often bother with removing the blistered skins from roasted sweet peppers out of sheer laziness, but I feel that in this case it really makes a difference when presenting and eating the salad. It’s just salty slabs of marinated cheese with the yielding sweet flesh of peppers, topped with a little additional balsamic vinegar and olive oil to bind it all together. This salad could serve 2 for lunch or 4 as part of a dinner, I would present it alongside a mixed green salad and maybe a small antipasti plate with charcuterie, olives, fresh figs, and ripe peaches. A bottle of well-chilled and fruit-forward Gewurztraminer wouldn’t be amiss, nor would a gin and tonic with a slice of cucumber peel wrapped round the inside of the glass.

Sliced Halloumi Marinating in Lemon Juice, Olive Oil, Bird's Eye Chilies, and Fresh Oregano

for the slow roasted sweet peppers:

4 sweet peppers

2 tsp. sherry vinegar

2 Tbsp. olive oil

Preheat the oven to 325 degrees. Leave the peppers whole/with stems intact but pierce them in a few spots with a sharp knife. Roast for 1 1/2 hours, turning a few times to ensure even cooking. Remove from the oven and transfer to a large bowl, cover with plastic wrap and allow the peppers to steam for 20 minutes. Carefully remove the charred skin from the peppers and tear them into sections that are about 1 inch across. Drizzle with sherry vinegar and olive oil, allow to sit for at least 30 minutes at room temperature before using in the salad.

for the baked halloumi with oregano and chilies:

1 block of halloumi, sliced lengthwise in 1 cm pieces

Juice and zest from 1 lemon

2 Tbsp. olive oil

A small handful of fresh oregano leaves, roughly torn

3-5 Bird’s Eye chilies, halved lengthwise

Plenty of freshly cracked pepper

Arrange the halloumi in a single layer on a glass baking dish. Whisk together the lemon juice and zest, olive oil, oregano, chilies, and black pepper. Pour over the halloumi and allow to marinate in the fridge for up to 24 hours. When you’re ready to bake the halloumi, preheat the oven to 400 degree. Once the oven is hot bake the cheese for 10-16 minutes or until browned, it should be soft but still retain its shape.

to assemble the salad:

Beginning with a piece of halloumi, layer the roasted sweet pepper strips and the cheese until the ingredients are all used up. This salad is perfect for playing individually, or layering it all up at once for an intimate salad for 2-3 people. Pour any leftover balsamic vinegar and olive oil on top and finish with sprigs of fresh oregano. Serve at room temperature.

I’m firmly entrenched in a delicate state of fake it til you make it, I’m wiping back tears at the most inopportune moments, feeling untethered and far away from everything and everyone. When I’m asleep I feel like I’m grasping at the darkness to make sure my eyes stay shut, when I’m awake I’m dreaming of the darkness. So I listen to music like Aurora’s amazingly present and self-assured album All My Demons Greeting Me as a Friend to feel connected to the moment in a way that only loud music can.

Aurora – Conquerer

 

Orzo Pasta Salad with Roasted Eggplant, Zucchini, Red Peppers and Sweet Corn

Square white bowl with creamy orzo pasta salad with roasted red peppers, zucchini, and eggplant. On a blue and white striped tablecloth.

Cooking in the summer is so easy, it’s just a matter or picking out what looks best at the market on the way home from work (if you’re fortunate enough to live near fresh produce stands, that is). I love walking into the New Apple Market on West Broadway to admire whatever it is that’s new on any given day, sometimes picking out a bouquet of inexpensive peonies for my bedroom. Pasta salad is the best thing to have floating around in the fridge in the summer, meals come together in minutes and packed lunches are ready to go for the week. Orzo is my go-to shape for pasta salad, it retains its bite and shape even after being coated in a creamy dressing for up to 4 days. I prefer the taste of jarred and marinated roasted red peppers for this recipe, they add a sweet and tangy kick and come packed in brine that serves as an ingredient for the dressing. If you can find good quality jarred and roasted zucchini or eggplant slices use them as well. I sometimes find that these pantry staples can have a greyish taste so make sure they’re a brand worth using in place of the freshly roasted version. The corn, prepared however you like, is a pleasing addition to the orzo and adds a whole other layer of bright sweetness to the finished result. Add crumbled chèvre or Macedonian feta for some extra creaminess or a can of drained chickpeas for  additional heft.

orzo pasta salad with roasted eggplant, zucchini, and red peppers:

1 package of orzo

1 eggplant, cut into small cubes

1 zucchini, cut into small cubes

1 jar of roasted red peppers + 1/4 cup of brine

About 3 ears worth of corn, roasted/grilled/or boiled and cooled

1 bunch of scallions, thinly sliced

1/4 cup of green olives, pitted and cut into very small pieces

1 bunch of fresh basil, cut in a chiffonade

1 small bunch of parsley, finely chopped

Olive oil

Kosher salt and freshly cracked pepper

  1. Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Cook the orzo in lightly salted water according to package instructions. Rinse with cold water until the orzo is room temperature. Transfer to a large salad bowl and drizzle with olive oil and stir to prevent the pasta from sticking together.
  2.  Arrange the cut up eggplant and zucchini on a large parchment-paper lined baking sheet. Coat with olive oil using your hands to ensure even coverage. Bake for 30-40 minutes, stirring once or twice. Remove from oven and set aside.
  3. Dice the marinated roasted red peppers and add to the orzo. Stir in the corn, eggplant, zucchini, scallions, green olives, fresh basil, and parsley. Toss the mixture with the dressing, stirring thoroughly so that the pasta and vegetables are completely coated. Add plenty of freshly cracked pepper and salt to taste before allowing to sit 15 minutes before serving.

for the creamy dressing:

1/4 cup of roasted red pepper brine

Juice of 1 lemon

1 Tbsp. balsamic vinegar

2 Tbsp. mayonnaise

1/4  cup olive oil

1 garlic clove, finely minced

Kosher salt and freshly cracked pepper

Combine all the ingredients in a jar and shake until completely emulsified (or whisk in a bowl until you get the same result).

This is music that best scores my solo endeavours, making dinner late at night on my own while I’m in my nightgown, walking around in the rain with headphones on, or reading library books on the couch. Endearing, sweetly nostalgic songs that buffer the slightly overwhelming feeling of being surrounded by too much empty space.

Plums – Parking Lots

Easy Summer Spaghetti with Yellow Squash, Tomatoes, and Quick Homemade Pesto

A round white bowl full of spaghetti, yellow squash, and grape tomatoes covered with green pesto and topped with parmesan cheese,.

I have a very bad habit of getting overwhelmed with summer produce, the choice in colour and flavour is unmatched the rest of the year (at least for me, in British Columbia). This means that I’m sometimes able to convince myself it’s a good idea to buy 6 summer squash because I can’t resist their sunny coats, or an excess of tiny tomatoes smelling of pleasantly earthy and dried out vines. Or, I’ll buy huge quantities of fresh arugula or that overwhelmingly fresh-smelling gigantic bunch of mint. Luckily, this recipe for Easy Summer Spaghetti with Yellow Squash, Tomatoes, and Quick Homemade Pesto is a common fix for an overabundance of vegetables. The summer vegetables can be swapped out for whatever you have in your vegetable drawer, the options are virtually limitless in terms of variety and methods of combination. The pesto is easy, and yes, extremely quick to put together and once again can function as a delicious means to using up all those slightly wilted herbs and greens lurking in the crisper. I use pepitas instead of pine nuts in my quick pesto, because I rarely have them in the pantry and I’ve always been sensitive to nut allergies (I’m not allergic to pine nuts, but my mom is and I’ve grown up trying to be very careful). You could also use slivered almonds or cashews for an extra luxurious texture.

easy summer spaghetti with yellow squash, tomatoes, and quick homemade pesto:

1 yellow summer squash, cut into 2 cm slices and then into thick matchsticks

1 pint grape tomatoes, washed

2 shallots or 1/2 a small onion, diced

2 cloves of garlic, minced

1 Tbsp. olive oil

Kosher salt and freshly cracked black pepper

1 package of spaghetti

Grated Parmigiano-Reggiano

  1. Put a big pot of salted water on to boil while you cut up your vegetables.
  2. Prepare the spaghetti according to package directions and as it cooks sauté the summer squash, tomatoes, shallots, and garlic in the olive oil over medium heat until everything starts to soften and the garlic gets really fragrant, season to taste with salt and pepper.
  3. Reserve 1 cup of pasta water before draining the spaghetti. Return the pasta to the pot and stir in the cooked vegetables and pesto, adding the cooking liquid in small increments until the desired sauce coverage is achieved.
  4. Serve the spaghetti in warmed shallow dishes with a liberal dusting of grated cheese and a few extra cracks of fresh pepper.

for the pesto:

About 2-3 cups of fresh herbs and greens, loosely torn (I like to use a combination of fresh mint, basil, parsley and arugula for this recipe)

2 cloves of garlic, minced

Juice of 1/2 lemon

2 Tbsp. pepitas

1 tsp kosher salt

1 ounce of parmesan, grated

3 Tbsp. olive oil

Blitz together the herbs/greens, garlic, lemon juice, salt, and parmesan in a food processor until everything is finely chopped. Slowly pour the olive oil into the the feed chute until the pesto is creamy and emulsified, scraping down the sides a couple of times as it’s being processed.

I’ve been mostly listening to classical music  while I cook, that or Iris Murdoch’s The Good Apprentice on audiobook. I have really nice, consistently calming summer memories involving classical piano music playing with the windows open. I have just as many wonderful thoughts about cooking at the end of the day to relax and unwind, floating around on a cloud of Chopin with my pyjamas on and a glass of wine. Either way, pleasant feelings.

Chopin – Complete Nocturnes (Brigitte Engerer)